Rock Flashback: The Bosstown Sound

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simon kirke joe walsh jeff baxter Rock Flashback: The Bosstown Sound

Simon Kirke of Free, Joe Walsh of the James Gang, and Jeff Baxter of Ultimate Spinach, 2007. They may have been in some other bands, too. (Getty Images/Ethan Miller)

In 1968, a record producer named Alan Lorber started hyping “the Bosstown Sound” as a marketing concept. Other American cities had their influential scenes — Detroit, Memphis, San Francisco — so why not Boston? The Bosstown Sound is remembered today as a bad hype gone wrong, but the reality is, as reality tends to be, more subtle.

Lorber had signed a group of artists to MGM Records, and he believed Boston was a fertile place to launch their careers because of its heavy concentration of college students. But he ran into trouble after MGM took out trade-paper ads hyping the Bosstown Sound and its first three acts, [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Orpheus[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Ultimate Spinach[/lastfm], and [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Beacon Street Union[/lastfm]. Prominent rock critics promptly accused MGM, Lorber, and their bands of being commercial sellouts. A year or two later, when MGM set about to purge its roster of “drug-oriented” acts, the Bosstown acts were the first to go, although their lack of sales helped usher them out the door.

Lost in the controversy was the music and the bands themselves, some of which found an audience and left a mark. Orpheus opened for a number of top acts during its brief lifespan, including [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Janis Joplin[/lastfm] and [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Cream[/lastfm]. Beacon Street Union, despite being produced by [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Partridge Family[/lastfm] auteur Wes Ferrell, had chops enough to back [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Chuck Berry[/lastfm] in their early days, and eventually went fully psychedelic. [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Ultimate Spinach[/lastfm], famed for its use of the theremin, counted among its members [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Jeff Baxter[/lastfm], later to play with the [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Doobie Brothers[/lastfm] and [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Steely Dan[/lastfm]. [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Earth Opera[/lastfm] was fronted by bluegrass mavens [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Peter Rowan[/lastfm] and [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]David Grisman[/lastfm]. In years that followed, many Boston-area artists cited the Bosstown bands of the late ’60s as influences.

The most successful bit of the Bosstown Sound was probably “Can’t Find the Time” by Orpheus, a lovely sunshine-pop song that charted briefly in the fall of 1969. If you don’t know it, get acquainted.

Lorber told the story of the Bosstown Sound in a 1992 Goldmine magazine piece, which features annotations by Erik Gulliksen of Orpheus, and is highly recommended.

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